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By Mark Baker and Laura Winter
Just a few days ago, Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's victory in Afghanistan's presidential elections in October appeared all but certain. Karzai has led the country since the fall of the Taliban almost three years ago and has strong international and domestic backing. But the entry into the race on 26 July of Yunos Qanuni -- a member of the powerful Northern Alliance faction -- presents Karzai with an unexpected challenge. Qanuni announced his candidacy after Karzai, under pressure from the international community, excluded Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim from the ticket.
Prague, 27 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The decision by former Afghan Education Minister Yunos Qanuni to challenge Karzai for the presidency has shifted the Afghan political landscape.
Qanuni entered the race yesterday after Karzai announced Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim would not be his running mate. Both Qanuni and Fahim are ethnic Tajiks and members of the influential Panjshiri faction. Fahim is now expected to back Qanuni.
Karzai dropped Fahim after pressure from the international community, which saw the defense minister -- a powerful commander in the Northern Alliance -- as an impediment to disarming the country's warlords.
Sources working for the president also suggest Fahim was not willing to give up his current posts as first vice president and minister of defense -- the legal requirement for running on a presidential ticket.
Regardless, many analysts are praising Karzai for the move. Pakistan-based journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghan affairs, said it was Karzai's boldest act since coming to power.
"[This] is a clear signal that 'warlordism' is no longer acceptable. It's not just a question that [Karzai] dropped Fahim, but he's sent a clear signal that the warlords who have been blocking the disarmament process, which is key to having a free and fair election, can now hopefully be unblocked and that the warlords will now carry out the disarmament program as set out by the United Nations," Rashid said.
In an apparent bid to build up support among ethnic Tajiks, Karzai selected Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, the brother of late Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, as one of two running mates in the 9 October vote.
Rashid says much of the international community had pressed for dropping Fahim. But the United States -- Afghanistan's most influential Western ally -- has been careful not to disrupt powerful commanders like the defense minister. Karzai's apparent decision to drop him from the ticket appears to signal a shift in U.S. policy.
"The Americans have been keen not to rock the boat because they wanted the elections at all costs. They didn't want a confrontation with the warlords. In fact, six weeks ago the American Embassy in Kabul was quite instrumental in trying to put together a deal between Karzai and the warlords," Rashid said.
It is uncertain whether Qanuni can muster an effective campaign. Karzai remains the frontrunner in a field of around 20 candidates, including Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. A final list of candidates is expected to be released on 29 July.
Rashid says Qanuni may get some support from ethnic Tajiks and disaffected Afghans in the south. But he says any criticism coming from ethnic Tajiks will be muted because of the presence of Mas'ud's brother on the ticket:
"Qanuni may get some clandestine support from Fahim. But Fahim cannot come out openly against Karzai because, again, [Karzai's choice as running mate,] Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, comes from an illustrious family, the Mas'ud family. None of the Northern Alliance candidates can publicly defame him or Karzai," Rashid said.
A second Mas'ud brother is said to be backing Qanuni. A high-ranking UN official, who asked not to be identified, said that while the race for presidency will be closer with Qanuni on the ballot, Karzai will nonetheless win. The official said he was more concerned about what might happen after the vote, since Fahim will still have "the troops and the guns."
Meanwhile in Kabul, residents tell RFE/RL they are concerned the new dispute could lead to renewed tension. Twenty-year-old newspaper seller Qader says he is afraid.
"If they [Karzai and Fahim] work together it will be a benefit, the benefit will be for the people and for all if they work together. And people will agree with them if they work together. But I think it is difficult, because they don't like to work together," Qader said.
A young Uzbek militiaman, Jumah Murad from Mazar-i-Sharif, said the country could suffer if Karzai and Fahim fail to cooperate.
"There will be bad things if they don't work with each other. God willing they will work with each other," Jumah Murad said.
It's not known yet where Qanuni picked up -- in relatively little time -- the 10,000 voter registration cards needed to support his candidacy.
One Pashtun leader from eastern Afghanistan said he was surprised by Qanuni's announcement. But, like many other Afghans, he said Qanuni may have been planning the move all along.